Sunshine Week: Chicago Tribune

Editor’s note: In celebration of Sunshine Week, I’ve asked journalists from around the country to tell me how they use public records in their reporting. 

ALEX RICHARDS, data & investigations reporter at Chicago Tribune

Broken Bonds
Chicago routinely uses bond money to paper over its budget problems. Future generations will pay a staggering price.

I worked on a series with several other Tribune reporters called “Broken Bonds,” which ran in the fall. The investigation found that Chicago has a serious borrowing problem, squandering billions on short-term items (think Palm Pilot software) as well as to plug budget holes. Citizens will pay for generations on items and properties that no longer have any functional use when these funds were meant for serious infrastructure. The city also exploited loopholes to borrow constantly without ever holding a referendum.

We also extended it to the mismanagement and lack of planning for of a multi-billion dollar school construction and renovation program (paid for with borrowed money) to alleviate overcrowding, a problem that still persists in a district of 400,000 that just closed about 50 schools.

Over the course of eight months, we examined thousands of pages of documents — including city spending records, bond offerings, accountants’ reports, tax certificates, land records and City Council proceedings — to analyze how the city of Chicago issues general obligation bonds and spends those funds.

The request process was arduous and involved legal intervention. We were repeatedly deflected by the city and the school district, and involving counsel was ultimately the only way we could stay on top of these requests and ensure that we received what were legally entitled to.

(READ MORE about what public records the reporters used and how they did their analysis.)

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Thanks to Alex Richards for sharing his story. To get updates on what journalists I’m featuring during Sunshine Week, follow me on Twitter @RecordsGeek. If you are a journalist and would like your public records story featured on this blog, email kahinchcliffe@gmail.com.

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